How a chance encounter turned me into a novelist.
I first came to Hudson, NY in the early aughties. I’d been carrying on a long love affair with the past, so I took right to Warren Street, with its 165 antique stores. Each had its niche–Second Empire, Art Deco, Fifties Modern, 60s kitsch–making them feel like period rooms in a vast museum. Warren and the surrounding streets doubled as a museum of architecture. A stroll down Warren towards the river was a trip back in time, from brutalist, to stuffy Queen Anne, to the clean lines of Georgian.
What really excited me was Hudson’s present. In the wake of 9/11 people had fled up river to Hudson. They opened art galleries and a chi chi restaurant. That would have made Hudson just another gentrifying town, except Hudson wasn’t going to give up its gritty soul so easily.
Just a few blocks south of Warren Street was a state prison. And one street to the north was Columbia Street. Before the fifties it had been Diamond Street, whose brothels and wild bars made Hudson Sin City for the entire Northeast. Between Warren and Diamond was Murder Alley. They’d taken down its signs and hidden the diamond. They’d erected a fine statue of St. Winifred–patron of chastity–on Promenade Park the foot of Warren, as if to exorcise the past. At the same time, they also built housing projects at the end of Columbia.
I saw Hudson as the perfect funky chic town, rife with contradiction and conflict. That sense of contradiction got inside me–the tension between beauty and decay, between refinement and squalor, between life and death. I kept returning to Hudson, because I was thirsty for more of that feeling.
I didn’t know why, only that something was growing, quickening in me.
“RAY OF DARKNESS” IS BORN
Though I’d spent my adult life composing music, I dreamed of being a visual artist. I started showing up at gallery shows, pestering the artists–What was it like, being a painter? They were uncomfortable with my questions, perhaps sensing that there was more than curiosity at work. They were right. I’d only been writing for a few years, but had already contracted the writer’s disease: I was becoming a vampire. I didn’t just want some anecdotes from these artists. I wanted to steal a piece of their soul. I didn’t know why.
A friend met me in Hudson to introduce me to an artist friend with a gallery on Warren Street. Maybe friend of a friend would do the trick. The gallery curator was a tall dark-haired fellow who happily showed off his stuff. My eyes got big. His taste was darker than his hair. And it was my taste. I went to his bathroom in the back of the store, and found behind a curtain a large bone. I asked him about it. He said, "Oh, it's a cow pelvis." Good to know.
Before I was in love with the past–before I had much of one myself–I fell for the dark side of literature. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” knocked one sock off, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes the other.
Here now was an artist, and with my taste. As we chit chatted I sensed the man’s discomfort. He might have had creepy taste, but vampires in his store, in his life, were a bridge too far.
He needn’t have worried. By the time I left the gallery it was no longer run by the nice tall dark fellow who’d gleefully shown off his weird wares. Someone else had taken over. He was dark also, but not as tall. Otherwise he had nothing to do with the real guy. I knew the purpose of those souls I was borrowing: to animate my character.
What was his name? Ray. It was the name of two ghosts that haunted my father, and me by proxy. The first was my father’s grandfather Raymond. My father had inherited Raymond as a middle name. He had it legally removed because his grandfather was everything my father feared: a man who’d never achieved a thing aside from begetting a son and downing a fifth of whisky a day.
The other Ray was a beloved boss of my dad’s who died in a plane crash when I was ten. He was the first person I’d know who had died. So the Raymond my father tried to hide and the one he mourned found new life in my protagonist. He inherited some of my great-grandfather’s thirst for hard liquor (absinthe, in his case.)
Ray would embody all the dissonance in Hudson. He would live those contradictions in a way I’d never have to the courage (or foolishness) to do myself. He’d have his own love affair with the past, only the stakes for his were life and death.
As I drove from Hudson that day, that real gallery in a real building began to change.
I’d grown up on the edge of the Wesleyan University campus with its many fine brownstone Victorians. A block from me was an outlandish brick fraternity house with pepper pots and a keep. It became a stand-in for all the castles in the fairy tales I’d read, not to speak of Dracula’s. But by the time I got to Wesleyan as a Freshman the frat had been torn down: they “Paved Victorian kitsch to put up a parking lot.”
Every time I walked past that lot I got that missing tooth feeling. Now the frat house was reborn as Ray’s house. His gallery grew from the real one in Hudson, extending back to an alley. An Art Deco spiral staircase festooned with green leaves sprouted mid gallery, then spiraled up to the second floor like Jack’s beanstalk in the fairy tale. It kept growing, and I added a third floor to accommodate it. Ray would live on the second floor and sculpt in his studio on the third.
Hudson fed my jones for the past, but so had a trip to Rome. I was struck by the many round windows staring down from ancient buildings, and from the dome of the Pantheon. Oculi, “Eyes of God.” I installed one in front of the top floor of Ray’s house, an eye from which this visual obsessive could gaze with hungry eyes on the world while drinking his absinthe.
In St. Peter’s museum, I feasted my eyes on reliquaries– ornate gilded things with crystal windows revealing the tibias, finger bones, even skulls of saints. I’d long admired Joseph Cornell’s spooky boxes of found objects. He’d spawned an artform, and now it had a French name: assemblages.
Ray would create modern reliquaries, assemblages and installations featuring bones. That cow pelvis was about to have a new life, too. Oh, and Ray would own, and play two of my guitars that were stolen years ago: A Martin D-28 and 60’s Fender Telecaster with a cigarette burn under the nut. It was left there by a great guitar player with an opium habit who’d jumped in front of train.
As I saw assemblages in museums and galleries I borrowed this and that. And then as by magic, I started seeing things very much like what I’d created on the page. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I was on the road that led there.
BODINE SHOWS UP
Ray had a friend, someone very much his opposite. He was supremely self-confident, while Ray was tortured by self-doubt. The friend was easy with women and drank from a half full glass. While Ray was an artist at heart, this guy was a scientist.
I made up a story for how he got his name, but it was a lie. No one knows how Robert Hutchinson became Bodine.
He lived up the hill from Ray and owned a garage where he fixed cars–not just for the dough, but as a calling. Engines were subject to the laws of the physical world, as opposed to people.
Bodine had a hidden side, which manifested in his odd collections. A final ghost was calling me. In the late ‘70s I’d worked as a producer at Northern Recording outside of Boston, a music studio set in an old movie theater. Those years learning to arrange and orchestrate, and finally compose were dear to me. Northern had long been shuttered. Its owner, once a friend, had disappeared into the ocean in Rio one night.
Bodine would live in an abandoned theatre on Warren Street. His bedroom and kitchen were in the old offices. Northern had installed a control room in the old projection booth. In Bodine’s theater it would become his office (with a Hammond Organ, a vestige of the real one at Northern.) In the theater proper where Northern recorded bands and even a small orchestra, Bodine would put his museum.
Bodine’s garage moved downtown, across Murder Alley from the theater, with an entrance on Diamond Street.
I visited Hudson on a strange whim. I know it’s crazy, but I was determined to see Bodine’s theater, and his garage.
I walked Warren from top to bottom. No theater. But maybe there’d been in the past….I asked around. The shop owners were friendly, sensing that I wasn’t after their souls, but only a piece of Hudson history.
I was sent to an antique store. It had once been a theater. The owner pointed to the ceiling. “There are still sandbags up there in the crawlspace.”
“In case of fires. It was a primitive sprinkler system.”
Interesting enough, but I was thrilled to have found Bodine’s theater. The woo woo vibe was humming in me. I asked, “Are there any garages around here?”
The woman pointed to the back of the store. “Funny you should ask. There’s one right in back on Columbia Street.”
I walked back and there it was, a handsome red and white brick building, shimmering in the sun like it was actually real.
I wrote a whole back story for Bodine’s garage, how it was his reason for moving to Hudson, and how Ray had followed him…There’s been no room for the garage in any of the books (so far). Did Bodine actually have it? I couldn’t say.
What I did know was that my stories weren’t going to get far in the hands of an auto mechanic. He could fix Ray’s ancient Volvo station wagon, but then what? Bodine took up computer coding, and hacking. Ray and Bodine have been around for ten years. Bodine’s skills become more useful all the time.